Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Restaurant of Love Regained #BookReview

Book Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Author: Ito Ogava
Translated by: David Karashima

I bought this one off Amazon despite my self-imposed book ban, in a paperback edition despite struggling with shelf space. That’s how much I wanted to like this book. The premise is absolutely enchanting.

The story

Rinko comes home one day from her job at a restaurant to find that her boyfriend has walked out on her. As he goes he empties out their shared home including all her possessions as well as her life savings, which they were putting together to start a place of their own.

In shock, Rinko loses her voice. She decides to go home to her mother. The two have never got along but she has little choice now. She discovers  her mom has replaced her with a pig, Hermes, whom she loves more than she ever loved Rinko. With a loan from her mom and help from a childhood friend, Rinko starts a small restaurant. She calls it The Snail and serves only one exclusive customer a day. Her restaurant becomes successful and her food is believed to have magical qualities. Thereafter certain events occur and secrets come tumbling out that impact not just her restaurant, but also her relationship with her mom.

What I thought

Fiction centred on food is absolute comfort read for me. The Restaurant of Love Regained promised exactly that. Though the book begins on a melancholic note, it brightens up soon enough. It was delightful to follow Rinko as she set up her restaurant. I loved how things came together. The quaint door, the yellow orange walls, the handmade chandelier, the large old wood table, the hand sewn table covers, the thick rug and even a futon for someone who wants a post-meal nap. It was a dream.

Although built on a budget it seemed warm, spacious, elegant and cosy all at the same time.

Then there’s Rinko’s love for food. It comes shining through on every page. She has an endearing sense of pride in her cooking. When Hermes refuses to eat bread baked by her she is bothered and she experiments with ingredients to come up with something he likes.

It was disheartening to see something I’d made being left uneaten. The fact that the disgruntled customer was a pig didn’t help either.

I loved her dedication and her commitment to all things fresh and local. She treks through mountains and climbs trees to get to the best fruits and vegetables. She picks wild mushrooms and creates magic out of them. She plants herbs and watches them grow. She marinates and mixes, roasts and fries, stirs and sautés to cook up amazing creations.

What I didn’t like

I don’t want to put in spoilers but something happens towards the last bit of the book that completely spoilt it for me. Let me just say that if you do not like graphic descriptions of meat, stay away from this one. It is gory and insensitive and absolutely turned my stomach.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing or perhaps it was just me. I have been a vegetarian for over a decade, however, everyone around me is not and I’m okay with dinner-table conversations that discuss meat but this was something way beyond that.

I skipped through almost the last fifty pages which would otherwise have been poignant and sweet, filled with reconciliations and tender moments.

Last Thought: I leave you to make up your own mind about this one.

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Last Train to Istanbul #Review

Book Title: Last Train to Istanbul
Author: Ayse Kulin
Translated from Turkish by: John W. Baker

Stories of the second World War hold a very special place in the hearts of most bibliophiles. These are stories of heartbreak, of atrocities and of cruelty beyond imagination and also stories of friendship and love and bravery beyond reason.

If like me, WWII stories fascinate you, then The Last Train to Istanbul is a must read. Each time I stumble upon a book like this I realise just how many countries and how many lives were part of the War.

I had no idea Turkey was home to so many jews. Way back in 1492 Don Ferdinand, the King of Spain, commanded all Jews to leave the country (giving up all their material possessions) because they were considered non-believers. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey at that time, Beyazid II made them welcome in his country and that’s how a large number of them made it their home.

That’s just a side-story of course. But isn’t it interesting? The history of the Jews is so full of struggle. It’s amazing how they manage to pick themselves, and by sheer acumen, rise up again and again.

Getting on with the story..

The Last Train to Istanbul tells the story of two sisters Sabiha and Selva, daughters of a well-to-do Pasa in the Turkish Government. While Sabiha falls in love and marries a diplomat Macit, Selva falls for a Jew, Rafael Alfandari. The Jews had lived for centuries in Turkey, but marriages between the two communities were not accepted. In order to get away from parental disapproval Selva and Rafael move to Paris which is already home to a thriving community of Turkish Jews. When War arrives in France and the Nazis take over, Jewish families are no longer safe.

The Turkish government, then negotiates a safe passage for its people from Paris to Turkey, to get as many of them as possible on that last  train to Istanbul. In doing so it saves not just Turkish Jews but as many people as it possible could.

What I loved

Most of the WWII stories I’ve read have had to do with the lives of ordinary people – how they hid from the Nazis or survived the concentration camps. I had little idea of what went on in the diplomatic circles. The Last Train to Istanbul gives a glimpse of talks and negotiations across the table through Macit’s eyes, who is a high-ranking diplomat.

What a delicate line it must have been for neutral counties to tread! In the end of course no one remained neutral but there were countries like Turkey that only wanted to save their people Jews or not, without giving in either to all-powerful Germany or to Britain and Russia; countries which did not have a big enough army yet did not want to the compromise their freedom.

The political intrigue is wrapped up with Sabiha and Selava’s individual stories and that made it more interesting.

I loved the early bits in the book about life in Turkey. Come to think of it, Turkey is a rather unique country positioned as it is between Asia and Europe. It mixes up a variety of cultures to come up with something quite its own.

The book also tells stories of people like David, a carefree young man who steps out for an evening with his friends only to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to camp. There’s Siegfried a brilliant scientist who disguises himself to escape the Germans and there’s Ferit an active member of the secret service that helps the Jews.

What could have been better

Sabiha suffers from depression and there’s a whole episode with her psychologist that I thought was completely irrelevant to the story.

Also, the final train journey turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. While I did understand the danger the people were in as they passed through Germany from right under the noses of the Nazis, much of it was built up without help from the author, simply because I had so much WWII background. The book itself threw up few surprises and the climax was not developed at all leaving me disappointed.

Yet, I will say, this is a book that should be read.

Last Thought: A must read for behind-the-scenes intrigue that goes on between world leaders during war.

To buy the book click the image below.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy the book on Amazon through this link, I will get a referral fee, at no additional cost to you.

How I Became a Farmer’s Wife #Review

Book Title: How I Became a Farmer’s Wife
Author: Yashodhara Lal

Fictionalised memoirs are definitely Yashodhara Lal’s forte. After her debut book Just Married Please Excuse, we meet her again, along with her husband Vijay and the triple bonus of her three kids.

The story

Vijay, an engineer with a full-time job, decides to take up farming. We follow his story as he struggles to set up his farm right from planting vegetables (because he loves the idea of apne khet ki gobhi), to buying cows, and handling the motley crew that makes up the help. The farm hiccups along solely on Vijay’s passion and his determination to realise a dream. It is hard work, full of hreatbreak and yet comes with immeasurable rewards.

What I loved

Lal handles the story with her characteristic humour. It isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious (like her first) but it still is a fun read. Her writing is realistic, too realistic sometimes. The first few pages that described the chaos with the children, were so close to the truth, like a mirror to my own anarchic home, that I felt my blood pressure rise and almost put away the book in fright.

However, there are plenty of good bits too.

She weaves in a host of characters, good, bad and ugly. The wily Shukla ji, the endearing Mobeen and his family, Akshata the yoga teacher (I want one like her) as also the familiar Kajal didi. The story of the farm is interwoven with her own internal complexes and struggles as well as tales of grappling with a pair of twins and a fast-growing tween.

My biggest takeaway from the book was that it never is easy to step out of one’s comfort zone but that is exactly what one has to do if one wants to follow a dream. I loved Vijay’s doggedness and I have to hand it to him for the ploughing on ahead (pun intended) despite the thousand set-backs.

Also, as a mom, the book reminded me that children are more than willing to give up their gadgets if we show them the fun they can have outdoors. I loved how Peanut, Pickle and Papad connected with the farm and farm animals.

What could have been better

On the flip side the book gets tiresome in parts, the struggles too many and too long and I’m not just talking about the farm. Pickle and Papad seem too hung up on technology and Peanut is in a whole different world – they all are kind of scattered and disconnected. I didn’t get as much of a warm family vibe as I expected from the book. So that was a bit of a disappointment.

A little more humour might have done the trick, or maybe a greater focus on what kept the family together during those crazy days. But then maybe that’s all meant to happen in Madhya Pradesh.

Last thought: Pick it up if you’re looking for a fun slice-of-life read.

The Liberation of Sita – #Review

Book Title: The Liberation of Sita
Author: Volga

The Liberation of Sita is a collection of four short stories picked from Sita’s life. I’d like to say these are imaginary interactions but then this is mythology and real and imaginary aren’t really pertinent. It is all about how the story is told. This here is a whole new take.

In Volga’s stories Sita meets Surpanaka, Ahalya, Renuka and Urmila – all powerful women from the Ramayan, all wronged by men in different ways, often in the name of dharma, always as a result of patriarchy.

Sita meets them during the course of her sojourn in the jungles, where she spent most of her life.

When she hears her sons Luv and Kush talking about an ugly woman (with no nose and ears) who has a beautiful garden in the forest, she knows it is Surpanakha. She wonders in regret if Ram and Lakshman would have done the same had Surpanakha not been who she was, had they not wanted to provoke Ravana. She goes to meet the demon princess who raises questions on the identity of women, ‘Do women exist only to be used by men to settle they scores?’ she asks.

Then there is Ahalya who refuses to give anyone the right to judge her. ‘Never agree to a trial Sita’, she advises her for trust does not need proof.

There’s Renuka, whose son, Parashuram chopped off her head when her husband, suspected her of infidelity. She tells Sita to free herself from her husband and sons. ‘A woman thinks giving birth to sons is the ultimate goal of her life… but one day they begin to legislate our lives. Why bear such sons?’

Lastly there’s Urmila who shuts herself up after Lakshman leaves to accompany Ram and Sita to the forest. Not in loneliness, she says but in solitude. And in solitude she launches on a journey of self discovery.

These are women who refuse to wallow in self-pity or shed tears for men (or society) who have ostracised them. They choose to remain strong, to give up their families – husband and sons – to not bow down to the expectations of a patriarchal society. Instead they carve out a life of their own choosing and inspire Sita to do the same.

This is a powerful book, although the language isn’t perfect – some bit of it is bound to get lost in translation. However just this once, I was willing to overlook all of that. To truly enjoy this book you need to be familiar with some bit of Indian Mythology. If you do have that background this is a perfect read. The original work in Telugu, must have been better. Even the translation very effectively manages to say what it has to, and so remains a book that must be read.

Last Thought: A must read for those familiar with Indian Mythology, specifically the Ramayan.

 

 

 

A Spot of Bother #Review

Book Title: A Spot of Bother
Author: Mark Haddon

First things first – this Haddon book is nothing like the first one – The Curious Case of a Dog in the Nighttime (which you must read if you haven’t already). I needed to get that out of the way because if you go into it thinking about that one, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. That said, this is a decent enough read.

The story

It tells the story of 57-year-old George Hall and his family. George is a hypochondriac. He is plagued with a spot of eczema and he decides right away that it is life threatening. Meanwhile his wife is having an affair, his daughter Katie, (who has a son from a first marriage) is set to marry a man who the entire family dislikes because he just isn’t classy enough. His son Jamie is gay but he doesn’t want to come out to his family just yet. He is in the middle of a tiff with his boyfriend because Jamie is reluctant to get him to the wedding.

The Review

Haddon has the uncanny ability of getting into the minds of people who are different. He writes about them with amazing clarity. That’s what makes his stories interesting. Because Haddon’s characters are not ‘normal’ – an autistic teen or a hypochondriac, in this case – their worldview is a difficult to comprehend and that’s what makes his books refreshing. During the course of the story one needs to pull oneself out of the narrative periodically, to try to NOT feel like the character in order to understand the character because what he is saying or thinking may not be reliable from what we consider a normal perspective.

Does that make sense?

That’s what I loved about A Spot of Bother. Also the fact that it tells the story from multiple perspectives with George’s being the main voice. The  host of characters, each with their own quirks, their own stories and their own relationships give the book a sweeping family saga kind of feel. Many times through the book you re-evaluate people, change your mind about them, grow to like them or dislike them through the pages.

The narrative flags in bits but the end made up for everything. It left me with a warm feeling and a smile on my face.

Last thought: This one is meant to be read over a vacation at leisure. Don’t be in a hurry to get through it and you might enjoy it.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologies #BookReview

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Book Title: My Grandmother Sends her Regards & Apologies
Author: Fredrik Backman

It was with a happy sense of anticipation that I picked up this book. I’d loved A Man Called Ove and had turned quite a Backman fan. Plus the title conjured up cosy warm images of a sweet eccentric old woman. 

The story

Elsa is an almost eight-year old whose only friend in the whole world is her cantankerous rebellious granny. They are both ‘different’ and ‘difficult’. Since when Elsa was a baby her grandmother tells her the story of the Land-of-Almost-Awake, an imaginary land which has five different kingdoms. There are trolls, dragons and snow angels in these kingdoms as well as monsters and deadly shadows.

When Elsa’s granny passes away she leaves behind a bunch of letters to be delivered to people who live in their apartment complex. Elsa gets these letters one at a time through a treasure hunt. Each of them is designed to help her get to know the residents, to perhaps form a connection with them. As she does that, the imaginary and real worlds come together and help mend her broken heart not only brining her closer to her own family but also forming a large extended one.

The review

The premise of this book, the idea of it, is absolutely fantastic. The execution, however, fell far short of my expectations. I had a hard time ploughing through this one. To begin with I couldn’t get myself to really like either Elsa, who is precocious and much too grown up for her age, or her granny. That Elsa is a Harry Potter fan redeemed her just a tiny little bit but I couldn’t make myself feel for her at all. She seemed to know and understand more grown up thoughts and feelings than all the grown ups in the story.

Then there was Granny. She was just annoying, and not in a sweet funny way (like Ove). A lot of her sequences seemed to be written with the deliberate idea of making her sound crazy. They made for great quotable quotes but did little to make her likeable. She passes away early in the book, but in the bit that we get to see, she is irrational and unpleasant to everyone (except Elsa).

Granny  didn’t make sense to me. We get a glimpse of her younger days through accounts from other characters. Apparently she had been a conscientious doctor and had touched many lives through her courage and compassion and had forged unbreakable connections. The two images – the passionate doctor and crazy granny – just didn’t come together for me.

She is also said to have struggled with guilt because she couldn’t spend enough time with Elsa’s mom, Ulrika. If she did regret it, I thought she would have tried to make up for it in some way. However, all she does is make life difficult for the pregnant Ulrika, who was my favourite character in the book – harried yet struggling to keep her cool with very little help from either Elsa or Granny.

Then there was the Land-of-Almost-Awake. I started out loving the concept of all these  imaginary characters finding parallels in real life. But that became my greatest gripe. The imaginary lands were just too many and they got so very complicated that I couldn’t keep track. Rather than adding to the story, they slowed down its progress unbearably, till it became one big confusing mess.

The end was somewhat interesting but by then I just wanted the book to finish.

Oh and Britt Marie is a side character in the book. Britt Marie Was Here was on my TBR but now I’m wondering if it’s worth it. 

This one was a waste of a great idea.

Last thought: You can give this one a miss.

Jinnah Often Came to Our House #BookReview

 

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Book Title: Jinnah Often Came to Our House
Author: Kiran Doshi

The best way to learn history is to weave it into a story, a fictional tale with a dash of drama. When an author does that, and does it well, history becomes a captivating story rather than a dry collection of facts. It becomes easier to understand, to sympathise and to identify with. That’s exactly what Kiran Doshi does so very brilliantly in this book of his – Jinnah Often Came to Our House.

So he takes one of the most intriguing characters from Indian history – Jinnah, puts him in the story of Sultan and Rehana and sets it in the backdrop of the Indian struggle for Independence.

What we have then is a gripping book.

The story begins with Sultan a well-to-do upper class Kowaishi Mohammedon lawyer, or barrister, as they were called then. He is in the process of separating from his English wife. He then woos and weds Rehana, sets up his practice and goes on to make a mark in the Indian legal system. He vows to remain apolitical, to stay away from the freedom struggle, to focus on being just a lawyer. He fights cases for Hindus and Muslims alike, hence the nickname Azad.

This is also as much, perhaps more, the story of Rehana – the only surviving child of a forward thinking Muslim professor. She falls for the witty Sultan and fits into his life and his family like a long-lost piece of jigsaw. She wins over Bari phuppi, the matriarch of the family, who bestows a grant on her to set up a school for muslim girls (which she later opens up to all girls). Strongly influenced by Gandhi ji, Rehana later joins the Congress and fights for India’s freedom.

Most of all, this is the story of Jinnah, woven beautifully, inextricably with these two characters. Jinnah who is Sultan’s very famous senior and later, a friend. Jinnah, who parries and argues with Rehana in Shakespearean quotes and also nurses a soft spot for her.

The book talks about his turbulent marriage with Ruttie, the effervescent Parsi girl young enough to be his daughter (he was just three years younger than her father) and his brotherly affection for his (quite unpleasant) sister, Fatima. It talks about his journey from a pork eating, cigarette smoking liberal Muslim who believed firmly in Hindu and Muslim unity, to the man who fathered a separate nation for the Muslims.

The Review

The biggest strength of this book is its smooth gently-flowing narrative that keeps the reader turning pages.

It gives a fascinating glimpse of the Bombay of the early 20th century. It talks about upper class Muslims of that time, when men went hunting and got together at clubs to gossip; when the streets were washed by the bhishtees and the first Rolls Royce rolled out; the time when electric fans, flush toilets and hydraulic lifts were things only the very high-class could afford. It was absolutely fascinating.

While I was aware of the facts that lead up to partition I had little idea of the way the Congress spearheaded the freedom struggle, the various factions within it, the motivations of the people who joined it as also those of the few who decided to stay away. There was also the formation of the Muslim League, the way Jinnah initially distanced himself from it, decried it for trying to split the country on communal lines and then how he joined it because, as he said, better him than a conservative Muslim.

He continues to work for an Independent India till the Gandhi wave takes over the Nation, sidelining him completely. From the most respected man of the country he is suddenly lost in this wave, turning angry and bitter. It broke my heart a little bit to watch him change page by page until finally, driven largely by his ego, he decides to write a different history. And we watch as he singlehandedly forges a new country banishing India and Pakistan to eternal enmity.

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The book opened me up to new perspectives.

For instance there’s Gandhi. I have come a long way from idolising him to demonising him in my early youth, to now finally accepting him as an extraordinary man who had his flaws. The book reinforces that image. I could see how frustrating it would have been to live and fight along a man like Gandhi. Many of his decisions made sense only to him, though they were right on principle they took away from the freedom struggle. For people like Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose and perhaps even Jinnah in the beginning, the freedom struggle was supreme but for Gandhi it was his principles that were most important.

Despite all the complications, the twists and turns, Kiran Doshi manages to tell this tale simply and with plenty of humour. 

Last Thought: Absolute must-read.

You can buy Jinnah Often Came to Our House by clicking on the image below.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy the book on Amazon through this link, I will get a referral fee, at no additional cost to you.